The Symbolism of Broomsticks

Henry Meynell Rheam - A Maid Sweeping

Broomsticks are useful storytelling symbols that serve double duty — they are a symbol of female oppression (tied to the house and the drudgery of housework) but also, by leap of imagination, turn into a vehicle by which to escape. Broomsticks may keep a woman housebound, but also afford the imaginative freedom to fly.

This is how broomsticks became associated with witches. There is another theory about why broomsticks became connected to witchcraft. (It’s not safe for work, possible paywall.)

For those of us with vacuum cleaners, it’s hard to imagine the amount of time once tied to brooms, brushes and dustpans. The task of keeping dirt and dust from the home was constant — and necessary — because without constant attention the home would attract rodents. At certain times in history, rodents in the house meant death.

For this reason, in Ancient times brooms in a temple were considered sacred. You had to have clean hands to use one.

There are plenty of superstitions concerning brooms, because the act of sweeping is inherently metaphorical.

One version of ‘correct’ sweeping looked like this: Start by the door and sweep inwards. If you sweep your dust outwards towards the front door you will sweep your luck away. (I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life.)

Brooms have had both indoor and outdoor uses, all resulting in hard work.

Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905 Presented by Sir Henry Tate 1894 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N01539
Weeding the Pavement 1882 George Henry Boughton 1833-1905

Brooms have phallic associations (and doesn’t everything?). According to one old superstition, if a single woman stepped over a broom lying on the floor, she would become pregnant out of wedlock. The degree to which people imagine stuffing things inside women to control us will forever baffle me.

It wasn’t just women who have been symbolically tied to brooms. Victorian era British art often depicts boys alongside brooms, as a shorthand symbol of poverty. These are working class boys, some are perhaps chimney sweeps.

The boy below is sitting outside in the dark. Darkness and brooms don’t go luckily together. In Europe it considered unlucky to sweep your home after dark.

Augustus Edwin Mulready - A London Jo - the end of the day 1884
Augustus Edwin Mulready – A London Jo – the end of the day 1884
Augustus Edwin Mulready - The Little Spies 1886
Augustus Edwin Mulready – The Little Spies 1886

The broom does another double duty — in the pleasant and calming scene depicted below, the broom seems to simply add balance to the composition, and also act as another feature of the home, alongside gardens and pets.

Charles Edward Wilson - Feeding the Pets ca. 1890
Charles Edward Wilson – Feeding the Pets ca. 1890

Here’s a similar bucolic composition from the same painter:

Charles Edward Wilson - Louisa - The Rabbit ca. 1920
Charles Edward Wilson – Louisa – The Rabbit ca. 1920
George Bernard O'Neill - The Surprise
George Bernard O’Neill – The Surprise
William Henry Lippincott - Farm Interior - Breton Children Feeding Rabbits
William Henry Lippincott – Farm Interior – Breton Children Feeding Rabbits
William Hahn - Forbidden to go Sleigh Riding
William Hahn – Forbidden to go Sleigh Riding

The outdoors equivalent of the hygge broom is the garden rake:

Charles James Lewis - Mother and Child
Charles James Lewis – Mother and Child
 
George Sheridan Knowles - Summer's Fun
George Sheridan Knowles – Summer’s Fun
John Burr - Waking Dreams 1869
John Burr – Waking Dreams 1869

In the painting below we may wonder at the inclusion of the broom. We see a pretty girl admiring herself in the mirror — what’s with the broom edging into the scene?

It all becomes clear when we learn the title of the painting: Borrowed Plumes. A plume is a long, soft feather or arrangement of feathers used by a bird for display or worn by a person for ornament, or anything that spreads itself out as a bird plumes its feathers.

So these are not her clothes. This is a little brown bird dressing up as a fancier bird. The broom nearby tells us she’ll never be free of her mundane duties though, significantly, the broom isn’t positioned to appear in the mirror image.

George Goodwin Kilburne - Borrowed Plumes
George Goodwin Kilburne – Borrowed Plumes

Below, children dress up for play. A broom is a mandatory accoutrement when dressing as Cinderella.

Charles Hunt - Cinderella
Charles Hunt – Cinderella
 
BROOMSTICK WEDDINGS

Broomstick weddings were common term during the 18th and 19th century England and referred to weddings not regarded legal.

In America slaves who lived on plantations were often refused the right to marry. Naturally they fell in love and yearned to commit themselves to the love of their life. When two lovers jumped over a broom together they were considered married. This tradition is related to the metaphorical act of ‘sweeping away’ — and fresh beginnings.

Others claim the stick on the ground represented a division between their old home and the new. Lovers thereby jump into their new home together, this time as a couple.

 
The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790
The Old Plantation, attributed to John Rose, Beaufort County, South Carolina, probably 1785–1790

Supernatural Creatures

Brooms can be used to get rid of unpleasant things from the house — other than just dirt and dust. According to Chinese folklore, you can get rid of a vampire (jiangshi) by sweeping it out with a broom.

Up At A Villa by Helen Simpson

Henrietta Rae - The Sirens 1903

“Up At A Villa” is a short story by Helen Simpson, opening her 2011 collection In-flight Entertainment. This is a lyrical short story full of symbolism.

Cover copy tells us to expect work a la Alice Munro. Of all the stories here, the images in “Up At A Villa” are most reminiscent of Munro — young and old are juxtaposed, reminding the reader that we are all young and old at some point, and therefore young and old at once.

As for the style and storytelling techniques, this story is far more similar to the work of Katherine Mansfield than to Alice Munro.

CHARACTERS OF “UP AT A VILLA”

Continue reading “Up At A Villa by Helen Simpson”

Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield

interior of old fashioned train

Something Childish But Very Natural” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, published 1914. The story is named after a poem Harry reads in the book-stall. The poem is by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The poem provides in a nutshell the emotional arc of Mansfield’s story:

Had I but two little wings,
And were a little feathery bird,
To you I’d fly, my dear,
But thoughts like these are idle things,
And I stay here.

But in my sleep to you I fly,
I’m always with you in my sleep,
The world is all one’s own,
But then one wakes and where am I?
All, all alone.

Sleep stays not though a monarch bids,
So I love to wake at break of day,
For though my sleep be gone,
Yet while’ tis dark one shuts one’s lids,
And so, dreams on.

This is a story of youth and reckless abandon. At times Mansfield seems to be making fun of youthful attitudes:

“If only we weren’t so young” [Edna] said miserably. “And yet,” she sighed, “I’m sure I don’t feel very young—I feel twenty at least.”

Mansfield never lived to see middle age. But by the time she wrote this story, she almost certainly did not feel young. She had been through a lot.

CONNECTION TO MANSFIELD’S OWN LIFE

Continue reading “Something Childish But Very Natural by Katherine Mansfield”

Powers by Alice Munro

abandoned hospital powers_1000x666

“Powers” is the final story in the Runaway collection by Alice Munro, published 2004. I find this story the most challenging of the lot — as in, what in holy heck was that all about? I’m going to have to write about “Powers” in order to understand it.

Here goes my best shot. What can we learn about storytelling from this novella? About life?

If this is not an easy story to read, nor was it an easy story to write. This from her editor:

On her own, Alice did eight revisions of “Powers”. Then we worked on that ending because it was hard to finish off the story part of it and give Nancy her due.

An Appreciation Of Alice Munro

The New York Times reviewer did not consider “Powers” a success:

“Powers” devolves into a melodramatic tale about a provincial Canadian woman, blessed or cursed with psychic abilities, and her exploitation by a charming but feckless man on the make.

NYT

‘Melodramatic’ is an unusual word to ascribe to Alice Munro — a decidedly realist writer. Why would they have said that? I put it to you that this story is melodramatic if read at a more literal level. My own interpretation is highly metaphorical, as in, I don’t think Ollie is a real person. I think he’s a creation of Nancy’s imagination.

Hear me out. Continue reading “Powers by Alice Munro”